BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

MAL4PREZ

Back Stories I, Chapter 9/14 - Mal
Monday, May 28, 2007

Mal’s had many confusing days lately, but this one wins out.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2354    RATING: 10    SERIES: FIREFLY


Disclaimer: It belongs to Joss and all those business people. I’m just playing.

Rating: PG to NC17. I will not put warnings on each chapter, because I don’t want to give things away. In general, don’t be getting into any of this if you’re not prepared for adult storylines, violence, explicit sexual content, and - oh my - bad words.

Many thanks: to several fireflyfans.net members: LEEH and VERA2529 for hours of beta reading and entertaining discussions of many things. LEIASKY, TAMSIBLING, and LEIGHKOHL provided additional beta time on the early chapters. The talented MPHILLIPS did the lovely artwork. (Ain’t it nice?) FEI and www.chinesetools.com provided many colorful Chinese phrases. One of AMDOBELL fine fics provided a useful plot bunny. (I won’t tell which yet!) Finally – kudos to GUILDSISTER for her inspirational fic The Blue Sun Job.

Links: Prequels: The Fish Job (FFF) (LJ) and Easy Tickets (FFF) (LJ). Timing, pairings, and canon blurbs are in my FFF blog.

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Back Stories, Book 1

by Mal4Prez

SEPmal

Chapter 9/14: Mal

Mal’s had many confusing days lately, but this one wins out.


 

 

Grimly, Mal looks out the cockpit window at the ship approaching through the empty Black. He curses to himself; it’s just like that sāobī Lady Luck to drop this on him now, when his plate is plenty full. First he got stuck with marked cargo that Badger wouldn’t take, then his passengers turned out to include an Alliance mole and a fugitive doctor who smuggled aboard his lunatic sister. And now, just to spice it up proper: Reavers.

Zoë doesn’t say a thing when she comes on to the bridge, just stands behind the pilot’s seat, a hand on her husband’s shoulder. Wash covers it with own, then his eyes return to the thing outside the window. It’s close now, close enough that plenty of detail can be seen. The ship is ugly as can be, torn up and stained, its misshapen front end grimacing at them and a cloud of waste billowing in its wake.

“Magnetic grappler,” Wash says, pointing at the oversized arm sticking out of the ship’s port side. “They get ahold of us with that –”

“Just tell me if they alter course,” Mal says. He doesn’t need a description. He knows very well what will happen if the Reavers latch on and board. Damn right he knows; he’s seen it with his own eyes.

He clenches his teeth and sets himself to face what might very well be coming, and what he’ll need to do about it. There’s no way he’ll let Reavers have their way with anyone on Serenity. If it looks to be coming to that, Mal will shoot down every person on this ship. Well, not Zoë and Wash; Zoë’d want to take care of that herself. But the rest of them…

“They’re holding course,” Wash says, and Mal lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. He struggles to keep himself icy as the horror of what he’s been considering crashes over him. Kill his own crew? He knows he would have. Even Kaylee, lying unconscious and helpless, fighting for her life. He’d have ended that, putting a bullet into her head without being able to tell her why.

“I guess they weren’t hungry,” Wash continues. “Sure didn’t expect to see them here…”

Zoë shakes her head. “They’re pushing out further every year.”

“Getting awful crowded in my sky,” Mal says. The shock slowly wears off; in its place is an urgent need to go down to the infirmary. He has to see Kaylee, to make sure she’s still breathing.

He’s turning to leave the bridge when –

A hand shook his shoulder, and Mal straightened with a start. He was sitting, his body propped against a thin metal upright, and the Shepherd was leaning over him.

“Captain?” Book asked. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” Mal said, running a hand through his hair. He felt like his head was full of molasses, and he scratched his scalp, trying to get some blood moving upstairs. “I guess… I dozed off,” he said thickly.

Dozed off? Since when did he doze? He patted his head with a bit more care, but didn’t find any sore spots like a hard blow would have made. He didn’t feel the particular kind of nausea that drugs or too much drink would leave, either. So what else could it have been but sleep?

He dropped his hand and took a look around, and what he saw increased his confusion. He was on the fore cargo bay stairs, a few steps up from the deck. The preacher was standing at the base of the stairs, looking down on Mal with an expression of worry.

“I was just on my way to, uh…” Mal paused, unsure. He must have been out hard, the kind of deep sleep that made you forget where and when you were. Sleep like that wasn’t something he’d had in a long time – the war had trained him too well. But he distantly recognized this addled feeling, remembered it from lazy summer days back home on Shadow when he’d sneak off to a shady spot and wake up hours later lying in the grass, trying to work out whether it was the morning or evening chores that he’d slept through.

It was like that now, made even worse by shreds of a dream that faded as he tried to grab hold of it. There’d been Reavers, he was sure of that. Not the distinct, horrible memory of Reavers as he and Zoë had seen them once long ago, but Reavers in his present life, coming out of the Black, passing right over Serenity’s bow.

“You were going to…?” the Shepherd prompted.

Mal ignored him, focusing the tangle of his thoughts, trying to sort dream from reality. It had been so vivid, like it had really happened. But Reavers going by all casual, no murder and pillage? No giving chase? That couldn’t be.

Clearly, it was just a dream.

What details he could recall slowly faded, just as any dream should, and that was a relief. Mal gave himself a short laugh, surprised that he’d suspected it to be true, for however brief a time. Reavers didn’t troll this part of the `verse. The course from Persephone to Whitefall didn’t take his ship any where near Reaver space...

“Whitefall,” he said to himself, finally finding a train of thought that made sense, that involved real life. “Patience. Gotta meet with Patience. The foodstuffs.”

“I believe – ” the Shepherd started, then he looked up toward the bridge. “I believe that Zoë is taking care of the ship’s course.” He patted Mal on the arm reassuringly. “Why don’t you wait here. I’ll call her down.”

Mal eyed the preacher, realizing that he shouldn’t have mentioned Patience and the illegally salvaged cargo. And another thing – this man had booked passage on the ship a single day ago, and he ought not to be talking to the ship’s captain like he was. Suddenly, Mal was annoyed with himself for acting so flighty around a passenger, especially a preacher on the lookout for a flock to lead. He grabbed the railing to pull himself up, moving a bit slow because the inside of his head still felt thick, but he wanted to be on his feet and looking down on the Shepherd while he set him straight.

“I believe there was a rule about no passengers in the cargo bay, old man,” Mal said, a harsh edge to his voice. “You get yourself back to the passenger’s dorm and leave the runnin’ of the ship to those who run it.”

Shepherd Book opened his mouth, then closed it and inclined his head in a small bow. “Of course. I apologize.”

Mal kept a dark stare on the preacher until the man was out of sight, then turned to climb the stairs. He made it one step before he caught a glimpse of something that brought him to a quick stop; he took a long look down at himself, at what he was wearing, and he began to be well and truly creepified.

It a neat and tidy dark blue jumpsuit, with a vest over it. Purple patches on the vest and sleeves showed blue and white serpents wound around each other. That gave it away; it was the suit of a medic.

“What the hell?” he muttered. A medic? Had he entered some alternate universe? Or was someone playing a really bad prank on him? This wasn’t quite Wash’s style, but Mal couldn’t imagine anyone else doing something this ridiculous.

Whoever was behind it, Mal meant to make it clear to anyone involved that this crap did not happen on his ship. He started up the stairs again.

He’d just reached the catwalk when motion caught his eye – the Tam girl was walking slowly in from the far side of the bay, one hand sliding silently along the railing. She was staring at him in a way that made him feel like some kind of lab rat, soon to be cut open so his insides would show better. It was disturbing, to say the least.

“Morning,” he said uncomfortably.

“Good afternoon, Captain,” she replied pointedly. “Uh-huh,” he replied, but decided to let her cheeky tone pass. She was looking a mite more stable than the last time he’d seen her awake – the one time he’d seen her awake – but he wasn’t inclined to push it. “It’s River, right?”

She stopped and leaned against a post, tilting her head to the side, and suddenly her eyes seemed to grow bigger and to drip a kind of sadness that no young person should know.

“Yes. Very good memory,” she said softly.

“Thanks,” Mal answered, then added I think under his breath. He looked around – there wasn’t anyone else in the bay. It made him wonder what his crew was up to, letting the passengers roam about like they were. “You seem to be feeling better,” he said to the girl. “All thawed out?”

“Thawed,” she replied blankly, without a nod or a headshake to explain herself. Mal waited, but that seemed to be all she meant to say. As if his jobs weren't odd enough, couldn’t he just pick up a normal passenger?

“Glad to hear it. So – given how you were boxed up and all, you didn’t hear the rules. Passengers need to stay out of the cargo bay, so you’d better go on –”

“Did you sleep well?” she interrupted.

Mal frowned, confused not so much at her question but the way she spoke up so quick, like she knew him well enough to cut off on order as it came out of his mouth. It was downright annoying. On the other hand, if the girl’d been messed with the way the doctor’d said, Mal was in no hurry to be harsh with her, not if there was no need for it.

“I slept just fine,” he replied in a measured tone. “How `bout yourself?”

She finally looked away from him, gazing down to the cargo bay floor, and shook her head. “Hard to sleep. Dreams are too loud.” She glanced at him when she said that last bit, just a quick sideways peek like there was some hidden message in her words. Whatever it was, he didn’t get it.

“I’ll see what we can do about that. We do aim to have happy passengers.” He jerked his thumb toward the hatch behind him, hoping to get her to leave. “Now, if you’ll just – ”

“Is it easier to sleep with someone in your bed?” she asked, not looking at him at all.

Shén me?”

“When you have someone to hold, someone to keep you warm, someone to make love with. Does it help you sleep?”

That was beyond anything he could handle at the moment. “Mayhap that’s a question you should be askin’… anyone not me.”

“Want to know what you think,” River said. She raised her head and fixed her eyes on him again, and this time he saw something that caught him completely off guard. The sadness was still there, but also a naked longing that made him wonder....

She dropped her eyes as a blush crept into her cheeks, then stepped closer to him and reached out a tentative hand toward his folded arms. “Mal,” she said in a soft whisper. “I can help.”

He took another look at her face, at her eyes that were too shy to meet his, and he knew that what he suspected was right. He’d seen this kind of thing happen in the war. You got a person in charge, someone who knows how to do things and keeps his weaknesses and problems to himself, and oft-times a lonely new recruit will believe the act, take a bit too much comfort in it, and start having notions that they really shouldn’t.

Question was, how had this girl gotten such an idea in her head, about him, so quickly? He’d never even talked to her before. Whatever – he’d best explain that little girls weren’t his thing, and put an end to this fancy of hers before it did her any harm.

“Never mind,” she said suddenly, her voice clipped like she was hurt. “Doesn’t matter anyway.”

She pulled her hand back and walked past him, shrinking against the far railing so she wouldn’t come close to touching him. Silently, she climbed the stairs and disappeared in the darkness of the upper corridor.

Mal sighed and leaned over the railing, resting on his elbows. He was feeling awake now, but still not so clear-headed. It didn’t help that his passengers seemed to have free run of his ship, and odd ideas as to how they could talk to him. He needed to find Zoë and figure out what was going on here – in just a minute. For now, it felt good to close his eyes, enjoy the dark and the quiet, and try to shake off whatever weight it was that slowed his thoughts…

He knew Zoë was behind him before she spoke; he recognized the soft tread of her footsteps on the stairs.

“Sir?”

It was spoken like a question, and she didn’t venture any more words. That told him that she wanted to suss his mood before she said anything. Maybe she already knew that strangeness was afoot.

“Zoë,” he said, straightening up, “if your husband’s got anything to do with this, we are gonna have ourselves a very, very bad day.”

“How do you mean, sir?” she asked, her tone noncommittal.

He turned around, raising his voice. “Just look at what I’m…. Oh.” He closed his eyes and shook his head, then opened them and looked at her again. “Am I seein’ things?”

“I don’t… think so,” she replied, but she didn’t sound at all sure.

“Are we both all dressed up like medics?”

“Oh, that,” she said, obviously relieved. “It’s a disguise.”

“Disguise?”

“That’s right.”

“We’re disguised as medics?”

“We are.”

“And… you’re gonna tell me why?”

She replied like it should have been obvious. “To get in to the hospital without folks askin’ questions.”

“And… we’re going to a hospital because…”

“We got a job to do. You, me, and Kaylee.”

That was too much. Just who was running this ship, and when exactly had everyone gone nuts? “No. No. No,” he told her, holding out a lecturing finger. “We got a job to do – you, me and Jayne. Marked cargo, Patience, dŏng ma? We don’t need any hosp- …”

Mal stopped when he put two things together. Kaylee – and a hospital. “Tāmā de,” he swore, and he turned to run down the stairs.

How could he have forgotten about Kaylee?

He heard Zoë following him, asking where he was going, but he ignored her and hurried on. He passed Jayne and Wash in the common room but barely noticed them; all he could think of was Kaylee, laying on the gurney, bleeding.

When he caught sight of the inside of the infirmary, he pulled up short in the hatch. Kaylee was sitting on a stool near the counter, studying some sort of diagram that she held in her lap. She was wearing another of those gorramn medic’s suits, and had her face scrubbed clean and hair neatly tied back.

She looked up at Mal and smiled. “Hey, Cap’n,” she said, her voice cheerful. “You all set to go?”

Mal was too befuddled to answer. He gaped at her until he noticed that another passenger – the young doctor – had frozen in the act of sorting the contents of a drawer. He was staring over his shoulder at Mal, looking for all the `verse like he owned the place and Mal was a surprise visitor.

“But… how…?” Mal stuttered. He looked to Zoë for help, but she was talking to Jayne and Wash. She sent the two men off through the cargo bay before she turned to Mal.

“What is it, sir?”

“It’s just…” He pointed at Kaylee. “Why ain’t she unconscious?”

“Why would I be that?” Kaylee asked.

“`Cause you got shot,” Mal said, the words coming out a little stronger than he’d meant. “The Fed – he shot you! Couldn’t have been more than an hour ago.”

“Nobody got shot, sir,” Zoë said beside him.

“But I saw it. You saw it, too. Right in the hatch over there – ”

“Sir, if she’d been shot, would she be lookin’ like she is?”

“Yeah, Captain,” Kaylee said, standing up and holding her arms out beside her. “See, I’m just fine.” She even turned a little circle, ending it with a neat country curtsey.

“But…” Mal stopped. How could he argue over this? Why would he argue over this? It was clear what he was seeing, and he sure as hell liked this sight better than…

A faint hint of his dream came back, a faded echo: Reavers, and Kaylee lying in the infirmary. And him, thinking he’d have to shoot down every one of his crew. Even Kaylee. This whole idea must have been part of that dream; it was the only thing that made sense.

“I guess… I guess I dreamed it,” he said, and as soon as the words left his mouth he felt certain, and he also felt more than a bit foolish. He scratched the side of his neck and smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, Kaylee. I… uh, I’m real glad to see you ain’t been shot.”

“Thank you. I’m glad of it myself.”

She smiled at him brightly, and Mal smiled back, but his worry lingered as he studied her. She surely wasn't fighting off a gunshot wound, but there was still something about her – about her smile. It didn’t have the clear joy that he was used to. And she looked… older somehow. Thinner.

“Come on, Captain,” Zoë said. “Bernoulli called while you were havin’ your nap, and we got a change of plans.”

“The hospital thing?” he asked, reluctantly turning away from Kaylee.

“That’s right. Come on up to the shuttle; I’ll explain it all there.”

* * *

Mal’d heard enough nonsense come out of his mouth already, so he figured that he’d try listening for a bit. Maybe he could get a bearing on what was so far a very strange afternoon. He sat on a bench in Shuttle Two while Zoë explained the new plan: there was a hospital with a computer, the computer had data, and some contact of Bernoulli’s wanted that data bad enough to pay them to get it. The doctor knew how to find it, but given his status, he wasn’t one who should get involved in crime. He’d shown Kaylee all they needed to get in and do the job.

When Zoë finished her say, Mal couldn’t come up with a good enough reply. This sudden “hospital job” had too many problems: loose ends, details that made no sense…. Zoë had to see it. The fact that she was passing it off to him as a good idea was worrisome.

He folded his arms and glowered. Zoë wasn’t one to get nervous, but he'd always been able to get to her. He waited, and when she looked away and fidgeted, he knew that what he suspected was right. Zoë was shoveling some kind of gōushī at him.

But if he was waiting for her to crack and spew out the truth, he’d be waiting a while. He’d have to try a little harder then the Stare of Serious Doubt if he wanted to get to the bottom of this.

“Zoë,” he finally said, “this sounds to me a lot like a change of plans.”

She gave in to that easily enough. “That it is.” “Now – correct me if I’m wrong, but ain’t I usually involved when there’s a change of plans?”

“You were busy, so I took the wave.”

“I was busy,” he repeated flatly. Was she serious about that? “I was busy… napping?”

She held her head up defiantly and looked him in the eye. “That’s right. I didn’t think there’d be a problem if I took care of it.”

“Yeah, there’s a problem,” he said, raising his voice just a bit. “We got a Fed mole on board, an Alliance cruiser somewhere out there lookin’ for us, we haven’t unloaded the cargo Badger stiffed us on, and… are you seriously telling me that the doctor is settin’ this up? The doctor who just stepped on board yesterday? The prissy, blue-blood fugitive who got Kaylee…”

He stopped, because that wasn’t true. Kaylee hadn’t got shot; she was dandy, sitting down in the infirmary wearing some silly medic suit.

But the doctor’s sister was on board. She’d come out of a box, a box Mal had opened himself. He’d opened that box because the doctor’d played fast and loose with Kaylee’s life, and Mal’d damn well wanted to know why.

But Kaylee never got shot…

Mal’s stomach fell out from under him.

Zoë spoke again, her voice even and measured and blank. “Sir, I know this may seem a little off, but I need you to trust me.”

Her words enveloped Mal in a sense of déjà vu so strong it made him dizzy, made him feel like he’d breathed in a little too much pure O2, or maybe not enough. Zoë’d said that to him before. Not just once, but many times. He was absolutely sure of it.

He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and dropped his head into his hands. Kaylee’d never got shot, but he remembered seeing it. God help him, he did.

“Do you trust me, Captain?”

He looked up and answered her the only way he could, the words falling out of his mouth slow and flat.

“You know I trust you, Zoë. But this is just…”

He couldn’t finish. He knew that he’d said that before; he could almost hear it echoing inside his head.

“Yes, this is strange,” Zoë finished for him. “This makes no sense, but it’s gonna work out. Just go with it – for today, all right? We got a chance, and… it’s important. Really, really important. We need to do this job.”

He shook his head, but he couldn’t find words for whatever it was he wanted to refuse. Maybe he was losing his mind? That certainly would explain things.

“We’ll sort it out tomorrow,” Zoë added.

Sort it out tomorrow: again that gorramn echo.

“Just come along with me and Kaylee,” she continued. “It’s an easy job, but we got a clock tickin’. There’s only a short spell when we can go where we need to. When we get back, I’ll explain. I’ll answer every question you got. I swear it.”

Mal couldn’t be satisfied with that. “Answer one thing right now,” he said. “I’m not imagining… whatever this is, right? Something’s goin’ on. Something… I can’t even…”

She replied in a voice without doubt. “You’re not imagining. Something’s very wrong, but we’re going to fix it. But I need you to trust me. Just for a little while.”

That demand again: Trust. Mal exhaled impatiently, looking away. Why did she keep asking that of him? She had to know that he’d put his life in her hands without a doubt. He’d done so many times already.

“Listen to me, Captain,” Zoë said in a commanding tone, the sort she hadn’t used on him in a damned long time. Not since he’d first known her, when she was the hardened vet and he was the green recruit. Corporal Alleyne’d been the kind of soldier who could get attention when she wanted it, and Zoë Washburn still had that power.

“You need to stop thinking about all the things that don’t make sense,” she said, her voice still hard. “All that matters is that we get this job done. You’ll need to help out a little once we get in there, but we’ll deal with that later. For now, you focus on right now and stay cool. Got it?”

After a short pause, Mal nodded. He had no reason to doubt Zoë, even though, right now, he doubted just about everything else.

“Stay here,” she said. No – she ordered. Mal felt a wave of defiance twist his insides, but it got lost in all the arguments going on in his head. He kept to his seat while Zoë called Kaylee to join them in the shuttle.

Kaylee said a brief hello when she came in, then took a seat against the far bulkhead, like she wanted to be left alone. It puzzled him, and he spent the shuttle ride studying her.

No, she surely wasn’t hurt, no matter what some stubborn corner of his head was telling him. But she did look different, like she was a copy of the Kaylee he knew. It was close, but not perfectly done. Some of the details had changed, especially how she wouldn’t look up at him, just studied a small rectangular techie device in her hands. She pulled a clear, round patch off the side of it and stuck it to the back of her ear.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Oh… it’s the comm for the uTex,” she answered. “The patch sends sound through bone. Picks up my voice the same way. Qiǎo miào, huh?”

Mal knew such tech existed, but it tended to cost a lot. “How in the world’d you get ahold of that?” he asked.

“You… I mean, I picked up a bunch last week. Got real lucky, I guess. Been workin’ on `em, to make sure they’re safe.” She flipped the thin rectangular box in her hands. “They’re not like to be traced, `cause so many people transmit on this band. The signals are everywhere.” She looked down again, studying the thing like she was too interested in it to talk to Mal anymore.

The Kaylee he knew wouldn’t be so tight-lipped about a fancy new toy – this was yet another tidbit to grate on him. There wasn’t a single thing he’d seen since he woke up in the cargo bay that made sense, and no matter how much Zoë reassured him, he knew something was rotten here.

He sat back and glowered as he considered it, staring at Kaylee as he tried to think of a question he could put to her, something that wouldn’t make him sound insane. She ignored his stare, not looking up at him again the whole rest of the ride.

It wasn’t a long trip. Zoë set them down in a crowded landing area, one of many surrounding a large complex of buildings. The three of them stepped out of the shuttle into a warm sunny day, and for a second Mal had another hollow feeling, unsettling enough to make him dizzy. There was a big bunch of not right sitting in front of his nose. He knew it, but he couldn’t name it – he couldn’t find the right place to look.

They had a bit of a walk to get from where they landed to the hospital’s main entrance, passing through lots full of transports and small groups of people coming and going. Mal’s uneasy feeling grew the whole time, and the thought came to him again: maybe he was insane. Maybe he’d finally lost it. But he couldn’t just ask about that, couldn’t say: Hey, by the way, have I gone nuts lately?

He settled for a simpler question. “You wanna share some details?” he asked, and he watched Zoë close while she answered.

“Not much to tell,” she said flatly. Her face was closed to him, her eyes not meeting his. “Kaylee knows the way. The doc got maps off the cortex and filled her in. We follow her, let her get what she needs on a data disk, then we leave.”

“And if there’s any problems?”

Kaylee answered, holding up her comm toy. “I got Simon on the line.”

Simon. Kaylee was calling the doc by his first name.

(“Don’t go workin’ too hard on that crush, mèi-mei,” he says as he spreads the blanket over her. She’s lying on the gurney in the infirmary, cold from blood loss…)

Mal shook the fragment from his head. She’s fine, he told himself. She’s fine and I’m not insane. There has to be some reason for all this.

The dizziness threatened him again, so he took to studying the transports they passed, taking in details in an effort to focus his thoughts. But here was yet another thing amiss, something concrete. The ships were too fancy: new models, many of them luxury types. The other folks in the lot were also out of place. Well-heeled, too much so for Persephone. Then Mal got a good look at the ID tag on one of the parked ships–

He stopped, looking at Zoë but pointing at the tag.

“Why’s that thing think it’s on Londinium?” he asked.

“Pardon?” Zoë asked, all innocent ignorance that he saw right through.

“That transport. Registered in Southbourne City, Londinium. That one too!” Mal walked on, checking more tags: all of them were Londinium. Every damn one – and they weren’t interplanetary travelers.

“I knew it,” he muttered. “I knew as soon as we stepped out.” He turned to Zoë. “This don’t smell like Persephone – which normally I would be more than happy about, but right now I’m kind’a curious as to how we got to the Core.”

Zoë and Kaylee looked at each other uncomfortably and didn’t venture an answer.

“Last I recall,” he continued, “We were a few hours out of Persephone, on our way further out toward Whitefall. Now we’re on Londinium?”

“You’re making a scene, sir,” Zoë said, glancing at a curious passer-by.

“Damn right I am!”

“I told you – things may be odd today but I’ll explain later. We need to finish this first. Trust me –”

“I am getting sick of hearing that!” Mal snapped.

“So what else are you gonna do?” Zoë said, her cool beginning to crack. “There’s no possible explanation for it, nothing I can give you quick. Yes, we’re on Londinium. But it’s all right. Just trust me!”

She held his eye long enough to tell him that that was all he’d get from her, and Mal turned away. Trust – trust was fine, and he had that for Zoë. But all of this… The preacher and the Tam girl acting like they knew something he didn’t. Kaylee shot but not really, then acting like she’s scared to swap a few words with him. The fugitive doctor, setting up jobs. The sudden change of location. The sudden change of clothes. He should remember dressing himself, right? How did he not recall something as basic as that?

It wasn’t possible. It simply was not possible – unless he was insane.

For a few seconds, he thought that really must be the case. But then a new idea come to him, bringing a welcome rush of relief. There’s a place where the impossible can happen, where oddness like what he was seeing could happen.

He was dreaming.

He wasn’t insane, and his crew wasn’t playing games with him. He was just asleep, dreaming.

Mal exhaled audibly, letting his tension go, then he found himself laughing softly as he turned in place, giving this world a long look. It all fit now.

“It’s so gorramn real,” he said to himself. And it was; he couldn’t remember a dream being so sensory. The air felt soft and warm on his face, carrying both the pleasant scents from the flowerbeds and the flatter odors of pavement and just a hint of engine exhaust. And the light of the sun – it was clear and golden. “Not like it usually is…” he murmured.

“Pardon me?” Zoë asked.

Mal smiled at her. “Most times, the light’s different. Kind’a hazy.”

“What are you talkin’ about, sir?”

“Dreams. Usually they’re not so… sharp.” He didn’t much care what Zoë thought about his words. After all, this wasn’t really Zoë. Just like that wasn’t really Kaylee. He looked toward the hospital.

“So we’re going there?” he asked, pointing to the entrance. He studied it thoughtfully. “I wonder why a hospital…”

No one answered, so he shrugged and started toward the building, curious as to what he’d find. As he walked, he looked up at the clear blue sky. In a strange way, he felt more awake than he had in some time. He couldn’t get over the brightness of the sun, and sweet clarity of the air. A light breeze ruffled trees that grew in intervals through the lot, stirring leaves the lush dark green hue of late summer. They flipped to show their light green undersides, and the trees appeared to shimmer.

“So real,” he whispered. It was nearly overwhelming to feel so aware, but at least it wasn’t a bad dream. He’d had plenty of those, and was no hurry to revisit a one of them.

That thought gave him a moment’s worry when he reached the hospital’s entrance, but all he found inside the doors was a regular hospital front desk and waiting room. Neat and tidy, people busy going to and fro, hardly a one even noticing him. No nightmares here.

A dull-faced woman at the front desk gave him an expectant look, and he just smiled and tipped his cap at her. “Afternoon, ma’am,” he said cheerfully. She gave him a confused frown in return, but he wasn’t bothered. It didn’t matter. None of it did, not here.

He realized that he didn’t know where to go, and turned back to find that Kaylee and Zoë had followed him, and were both watching him close. They didn’t say a thing, but Zoë nodded to Kaylee. The girl held her chin up and shoulders back as she passed Mal by, walking upright and confident through the lobby. He followed contentedly, Zoë beside him. He liked the idea of this Kaylee-like person leading him to whatever his subconscious mind had to show.

He laughed suddenly, feeling giddy. It earned him a nudge in the ribs from Zoë. “This is a stealth dream, sir,” she said. “A dream of being quiet and blending in.” She just about hissed those last two words, but it only made Mal laugh again.

“That’s so like you, Zoë,” he said. “Sayin’ something like that.”

Zoë glared at him. Again, it was so very like her.

They got on a lift with a few strangers, and Mal stayed quiet while they rode to one of the upper levels. They were the only ones to get off where they did, and Dream Guide Kaylee led them along a main corridor and into a small side hallway, coming to a stop before a closed door. A sign claimed with a kind of understated pride that this was the 3-D Holo-Imaging Suite.

For some reason he couldn’t begin to fathom, the words made Mal hesitate, but Kaylee got the door open before he could think much on it. She entered the room in a hurry, like there were tasks to be done. Mal followed at a more casual pace, ready to find out what new thing his dreaming mind had to show him.

It wasn’t pleasing.

This was a place he’d been in before; he knew it full well and he knew sure as the Black is cold that he didn’t want to be here again. His steps slowed when he heard the door shut behind him. A tightness grabbed hold of his gut, an ache of dread and claustrophobia.

He couldn’t put any reason or definition on it. Just like every gorramn thing that’d happened since he’d woken up (but not really woken up?) in the cargo bay, he couldn’t find any good reason for what he felt. Even so, he couldn’t ignore it; self-preservation wouldn’t allow him.

With an effort, he pushed the fear down and tried to at least reason this out. It was the the shape of the room that bothered him, and the color. It was almost familiar… but not from this angle.

He looked up, and it came to him.

(A big beige circle in front of him, with black in the middle. Lights all around, not so bright. Warm, soft lights.)

Slowly, he walked toward the center of the room, still looking up.

(The black is the ceiling; it’s a round room, beige walls, very clean. He’s lying on his back.)

His thigh bumped against something and he looked down – a reclining chair, right in the center of the room. He’d been in this chair once. Strapped down.

(Strapped down, unable to move. An IV stand next to him. A globe, an image of something round and wrinkled and pink floating above his head.)

The ache in his gut rose, turning into panic that quickened his breath and tightened his throat. He heard a light tapping of fingers – Kaylee was standing at a control board, her hands busy. There was a machine here, this whole gorramn thing was a machine, and she was running it.

He shook his head. That woman was nothing like his Kaylee. His Kaylee wouldn’t do to him what was done before.

But what the hell had been done before?

“Captain,” Zoë said, startling him. She was right behind him, close enough to touch, and he found himself wanting to back away for her.

That wasn’t Zoë.

“You all right?” she asked coolly, like they were doing some everyday job instead of sinking through a dream into a nightmare.

“What happened here?” he asked tightly. He didn’t recognize his own voice.

She didn’t answer. Mal looked down at the chair, then winced as the ghost of a sharp pain lanced into the back of his neck. It intensified and he gasped, pressing a hand against his head. It was like a hot needle going into the base of his skull, burning its way into him. He closed his eyes as the pain lit up pictures in his head, quickly passing images that he couldn’t make sense of.

(A green ball of fire streaks through the Black, striking Serenity toward the aft end of her cargo bay section…)

(The Shepherd crouches over him, his angry face lit crimson by distant fires. “That is why you are Damned,” he says…)

(Mal is bound to a chair. All is lost – he’s beaten and broken, and can’t bear to look down at Kaylee’s still body on the floor … )

(Impossibly, someone is in the darkness with him; it’s the doctor’s sister. “This isn’t real,” she tells him. “They’re playing with your mind...”)

Mal opened his eyes when he felt a touch on his shoulder. He’d fallen to his knees, one arm wrapped around his aching head, the other holding the reclined chair so he wouldn’t collapse completely. Zoë was talking to him, but he couldn’t make out her words. He slapped her hands back, then somehow got to his feet. He was reeling, hardly able to balance, but he pushed away from the chair. He wasn’t going to that place again, the place where all those things could happen.

“Have to leave,” he muttered. “Wake up…”

He moved toward the door, but Zoë was in his way. Not Zoë, he thought. He pushed her aside, shoving her as hard as he could.

“You stay away from me!” he said, nearly shouting the warning at her.

He hardly took another step toward the door when she caught his arm. The gorramn woman was as strong as the real Zoë; she spun him around and he didn’t have a chance to dodge the hard blow of her fist against his cheek.

* * *

He floats stationary in the remains of a long-dead carrier, holding himself in place with one hand on a torn beam. Weightlessness can be a pleasant thing, easy and comfortable and free, especially out in the empty Black with only the distant scattering of stars as company. It’s not a bad way to pull a job, not a bad place to be.

He notices that he has a little more company than those distant points of light. Zoë and Jayne are with him, and even with the bulky space suits covering them, he can sense their tension. He follows their fixed stares, and when he sees the approaching cruiser it all clicks into place. He recalls the situation: someone is encroaching on the job. A big, nasty someone.

“Wash – they slowin’ down?” Mal asks through his suit’s comm.

That’s a neg, Wash replies. Don’t think they’re interested in us. We should be eating wake in a minute or two.

Mal tries to swallow back his bitterness. Of course the bastards on the cruiser aren’t interested. If they were, they’d have been out here months ago, when the carrier blew, when it might have made a difference for those who choked on vacuum. But that ain’t the way of the Alliance; they don’t give a damn about dead shippers or a few abondaned crates of protein. The Feds sure as hell will bust him for trying to salvage it, though. That’s what the Law’s for, after all, not to protect, but to control. Make a whole passel of rules and punish those who break them, without reason or mercy.

The cruiser reaches its nearest point, then starts to pass by, and Mal feels a second’s cautious relief. Serenity is docked on the back side of the wreck, and it appears that the Alliance hasn’t seen her.

But then Wash calls out over the comm: Captain, we’re humped!

“Prep the ship now,” Mal orders without hesitation, then he points to the crates. “We move these in,” he tells Zoë and Jayne. “Double time.”

In a matter of seconds, they each have a crate and push off, moving quickly through the wreck towards Serenity. Mal glances at the cruiser; it’s slowing down, but a beast like that doesn’t stop on a whim. It’s moved further past them, and he should have a good long minute to get onboard and clear out. The only problem is pursuit.

“Cry, baby, cry,” he chants to Wash.

Make your mother sigh, Wash replies. Engaging the crybaby.

Mal clears the body of the carrier and sees Serenity waiting, the outer doors of her cargo bay wide open. He looks back over his shoulder – a swarm of fighters are coming out from the bottom of the cruiser, heading toward him. It’s gonna be tight, and if the Feds don’t fall for the crybaby he’s really up the creek. The bad kind of creek.

Almost there, he thinks impatiently. Just a few seconds…

“Captain?”

Mal groaned, confused. Zoë’s voice should be tinny, sounding through speakers in the helmet of his spacesuit.

“Sir – you awake?”

“Wide,” he replied, though he clearly wasn’t. “They get us?”

“Who, sir?”

“Alliance.”

“No. But they might if we don’t get to movin’.”

Mal tried to sit up, but when he opened his eyes he realized that he was already sitting, propped up between Zoë and Kaylee, looking across a wide, empty room at a closed door. Kaylee was wiping at his chin and bottom lip with her sleeve. He weakly pushed her hands away so he could figure out what she was so eager to clean up.

Blood. It was all in his mouth too; he could taste it. He found a rough spot on the inside of his cheek – the kind you get when your teeth dig in just right.

“Someone hit me?” he asked, incredulous.

“`Fraid so,” Zoë replied. “Need to clean it up – can’t have anyone seein’ that.”

Kaylee swiped at him again, and Mal let her. “I’m… a mite puzzled,” he said blearily.

“Don’t worry, Captain,” Kaylee said, though her own voice quivered. She looked rattled herself, but smiled at him bravely. “We’ll get you back to the ship and patch you up right.”

“That’s good,” Zoë said to Kaylee. The two women pulled him to his feet, then held him as he wavered. Mal’s vision filled with black clouds, and he let his head drop, trying to get some blood into his brain. Slowly, his equilibrium returned, but it took him a moment to realize that the blue-clad body he was staring down at was his own. Blue vest. Familiar for a fleeting second, but he wasn’t sure…

Ah-ha: the patch on his chest meant medic.

“Costume party?” he asked.

“Ain’t much of a party, Captain,” Kaylee replied, trying to joke but sounding too worried to carry it off.

“No time to explain, sir,” Zoë said. “We need to clear out of here. Now.”

Kaylee gently set a cap on his head, blocking Mal’s hands when he went to knock it off. He gave up as they led him toward the door; it wasn’t any kind of door he’d find on his ship, but it was familiar. Just like the blue suit was oddly familiar. Something about the shape of the walls, too, and that he found troubling.

They reached the door and Kaylee slid it open. Mal tried to turn back to see what kind of place they were leaving, but Zoë put a hand on his back and pushed him out.

“It ain’t important, sir,” she said. “Just go.”

Mal was powerless to do anything more than follow where they led him. His thoughts were too scattered to allow for much besides trying not to bump into people who looked like they wouldn’t react well to it, but he did manage to work out a few things by the time they rode a lift down several levels.

First: he wasn’t the only one in the clown suit; Kaylee and Zoë were dressed to match. Second: they were in some kind of hospital, which led to third: the medic outfits were disguises.

A job?

A rescue?

They stepped out into a sunny late summer day and Mal let the matter go – Zoë’d fill him in eventually, no doubt. For now, he just wanted out of this place. He wanted his feet firmly planted on the deck of his own ship.

Even so, one more tidbit worked its way into his overloaded brain as they crossed the parking lot: this wasn’t some crappy clinic out on the Rim. There was a hustle and a sparkle to the place, and to the people and the transports, that said Core.

He was still pondering that when they reached a familiar craft: it was one of his ship’s shuttles. Zoë took the pilot’s chair, which Mal was fine with. He was disoriented, and had no memory of where they needed to go from here. He took the co-pilot’s seat, sitting forward with his head in his hands.

He ached, and it felt like more than a punch to the jaw.

“Was I in that hospital for a reason?” he asked.

“We don’t have far to go, sir,” Zoë said. “Just hang on, all right?”

Mal nodded, and stayed silent for the trip, trying to will the pain and the befuddlement away. He had little time to make progress; it wasn’t but five minutes before he heard the docking arm grab hold of the shuttle. Zoë turned to Kaylee immediately.

“Get that disk to Simon,” she ordered. Kaylee glanced at Mal with an expression of worry, then nodded and hurried away.

Mal felt a wave of relief when he stepped off the shuttle into his own cargo bay. He couldn’t explain it, but he felt like he couldn’t depend on any door to lead him where it should. It seemed like there could be a nightmare hiding around any corner, like he couldn’t trust reality to behave properly.

His relief grew when he followed Zoë up a flight of stairs which led, as they should, into the upper corridor, and the corridor opened on the dining room. But then, as if he had some kind of precognition, he found the bit of surreal he’d known was waiting for him. He stopped just inside the hatch to work it out.

A small party was gathered at the table, and party was certainly the right word for it. A few unopened presents sat on the table next a pile of half burnt candles and a cake. Slices of the treat sat on plates in front of three people – their faces were like the room he’d woke up in and the blue suit he was wearing: almost familiar, but after a second’s study the recognition went away. Mal became certain that he’d never seen them before.

One of the faces drew his attention – the young man seemed the most likely to be a threat. He was neat and well-groomed, wearing a fancy silk vest and looking like he’d never worked a hard day in his life. He’d clearly been born to ease and privilege, and Mal’d wager he was a straight arrow who worshipped the kind of rules any properly sane person would shun: the Alliance rules. Here was somebody Mal didn’t like and didn’t trust, and sure as hell didn’t want on his ship.

Mal was about to voice his opinion when the young man smiled, his posture relaxing as he bent to talk to another of the strangers, a young girl. The party seemed to be for her sake; she had a silly hat on, all purple sparkles with green metallic tinsel hanging off it. But she didn’t look jovial; she was the only one of the three who took obvious notice of Mal’s arrival – she stared at him with a kind of heartbreak on her face that made Mal hesitate, made him pause before he lit in to these trespassers.

“Jayne and Wash back yet?” Zoë asked, going into the room like there was nothing at all unusual about the scene. Mal was set back again as he worked out the meaning of her question – apparently, these folks had been having their little celebration with not a single other soul on board.

“Not yet,” the third of the strangers replied, an old man with gray hair tied tightly back. “In the meantime, it just happens to be River’s birthday, and Simon’s been saving this for her.”

The old man motioned toward the cake, and started to offer Zoë a slice, but she wasn’t interested.

“You’ll have to finish the party later,” she said, then nodded to the fancified young man. “Simon, Kaylee’s lookin’ for you. She’s got the scanner results, and I want you to check them soon as you can.”

Mal finally stepped down into the room.“Excuse me,” he said, “But could y’all maybe explain – ”

“Not now,” Zoë said, cutting him off impatiently. “Simon, go.”

“I guess you’ll have to finish without me,” the young man said. “Happy birthday, River.” He kissed the girl on the top her head. She was still staring at Mal, a look of absolute misery on her face.

The man headed toward the aft hatch as if he had full run of the ship, and that’s when Mal’s paralysis broke.

“Enough!” he announced loudly. “You. Simon.” The young man stopped and turned, a questioning look on his face, but nothing like the fear he should be feeling when the ship’s owner and captain showed up in the middle of his festivities.

Mal pointed a hard finger at him, then at the table. “Sit,” he ordered firmly.

To his increasing annoyance, the man didn't move, just looked to Zoë, who gave him a small nod. “Go on,” she said softly. “I’ll handle it.”

“The hell you will!” Mal replied, and the man froze again. “Now, I do appreciate merry-making as much as the next captain, but… who the hell are you people, and how’d you get on my ship?”

Before anyone could answer, Kaylee appeared in the aft hatch. “There you are, Simon!” she said, then she noticed the trappings on the table and her face lit up. “Oh! You started without me!” She handed something to Simon – a data disk – then trotted toward the table, opening her arms to the girl. “Happy birthday, River!”

“Would you all… just cut it out!” Mal said, stepping further into the room.

Zoë walked over to meet him, clearly meaning to get in his way. “Simon,” she said as she went, “you go look at those scans. Don’t stop until you figure what is wrong with Mal ‘cause I can’t take this gōushī one gorramn more day. Captain, come with me.”

Mal pulled away so she couldn’t grab his arm. “Ain't gonna happen,” he said through clenched teeth. “Zoë, you need to tell me what the – ”

A harried voice coming out of the pocket of Zoë’s vest interrupted him: Zoë Zoë Zoë! Wash yelled. Get her warmed up – we gotta run!

* * *

Translations

sāobī:   bitch
shén me?:   pardon me?
dŏng ma:   understand?
tāmā de:   fuck me blind
gōushī:   crap
qiǎo miào:   ingenious
mèi mei:   little sister

* * *

Previous chapter | Next chapter: Inara

COMMENTS

Monday, May 28, 2007 5:49 AM

MAL4PREZ


I finally got LJ working, after many days! I think I’ve beat the spring allergies too - yay! Now there’s just the slow Memorial day coffee shop internet… it’s taken a good hour to post everything.

And so the action arrives, homespun!

Miss Jessi LOL! I knew that was your name, Jetflair, but it hadn’t occurred to me when I wrote it in here, or I would have given you a line or two! There’s no chapter for Serenity – that’s a little too much for me to handle. But I do include her in other ways.

Amdobell – still gonna be a little time for Mal. I hope it’s not too hard to read; I really am trying not to make him pathetic. But I’m fascinated with how the crew would treat such a strong man who’s been made weak by something beyond his control. It’s very illuminating of them all, and affects the whole dynamic of the crew.

NBZ – curious indeed! River is such a cat in that scene.

Katesfriend – keep track of your hints… I’m very much wondering what you’re guessing at!

BEB – you’ll just have to wait and see how deep the rabbithole goes… oh wait, rabbit holes are homepun’s thing… you know what I mean!

Platonist – re Zoë: yeah, I don’t normally see her as into Mal’s personal life, but things did happen a certain way... Anyway, I’m so glad you liked how I handled the proposal. I so think it’d be something low key and kind of silly like that.

Monday, May 28, 2007 5:53 AM

CHAZZER


Oh My Apple Pie. This was an AWESOME chapter.

And yes, I did spend the day I was supposed to be revising catching up with all your fics. If I fail, I blame you. You and Leiasky.

Except not, cos it will totally be my fault.

Update soon!!!!!!!!!!! Ten ten ten!

xxx

Monday, May 28, 2007 6:10 AM

KATESFRIEND


Oh My God. You had me in a sweat and a panic through this whole thing. Heartbreaking, scary and very, very real from his perspective. Excellent!

Now what else could go wrong?

Monday, May 28, 2007 8:53 AM

NBZ


Shear Brilliance.

Can see how it is very real from his perspective. A little like the film "Memento" (but not too much).

Now that he don't recognise half his crew things are gonna get interesting.

Monday, May 28, 2007 9:37 AM

AMDOBELL


Poor Mal, you really are putting him through the wringer good and proper, and poor Zoe trying so hard to keep up the charade. What puzzles me into a coma is why the good gorram you didn't have Simon give him something to calm him down or sedate him. It's obvious the Captain is unravelling at an alarming rate and the more people won't tell him what is going on the worse it is getting. I hope Simon can figure it out soon and help him. Ali D
You can't take the sky from me

Monday, May 28, 2007 2:44 PM

LAMBYTOES


Gorramit. That is all I can say.
Actually, I lied, I can say more.

How is Zoe planning on explaining to Mal that there are 3 people on board who he's never seen before. That would confuse me mightily.
That would suck.

Still amazing!

Monday, May 28, 2007 7:48 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


Tian Yesu....this was just f-ing superb, mal4prez! Honestly...watching as Mal's mental degradation increased and evolved and explored was oh so painful, but impossible to turn away from:D

I have to say that you are doing a brilliant job with subtly exploring how each remaining crewmen handles Mal's mental breakdown, and how Mal reacts to each one of their reactions. Though I have to say that River's not really living up to her supposed feelings, since I would imagine if she truly loved Mal, she would be taking a lot of walks through the good captain's casaba:S

BEB

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 3:09 AM

MAL4PREZ


Hey all - if you're checking back in... thanks so much for the comments! I reached a place of being sick of writing this weekend, which is bad because much is left to do with Book I. But now I'm feeling energized again! Yay!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 5:00 AM

LEIASKY


Ahh, what a nice twist with Mal not remembering Simon, River and Book. I feel for Zoe, she's got so much to deal with.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 7:18 AM

HOMESPUN


"And so the action arrives, homespun!"

And so it does! And it was nail-biting and gut-wrenching and all those good cliches they tell us not to use.

Every time I think you have my heart broken enough, you crumble a little bit more away. This is, as always, brilliant and heart wrenching, rendered with the great detail we come to expect. The thing is, I'm so amazed at how you walk us through Mal's mind. Painful as that walk is, you make it real and you make it make sense, so we see things the way Mal sees them. And as we watch him, his instincts are there, his gut emotions, the things that make him who he is. I was so touched when he was studying Kaylee and decided she was "close, but not perfectly done," that she wasn't real because she wasn't acting like Kaylee should, wouldn't catch his eye or make small talk. I love that stripped-down Mal, trying so desperately to anchor himself to something familiar, clearly sees the unfamiliar festering in Kaylee.

I've said "poor Zoe" in just about every chapter. I'm waiting for her to break, or break something, and you've captured her becoming frayed around the edges. And then a horrible thought - God help us if Mal doesn't recognize Zoe. Zoe, or Kaylee - you take us there and my heart may not recover. And now that that window has opened, a hundred thoughts have rushed into my head... none pleasant. You, my dear, are evil! Brilliant, but evil.

And oh yeah! Wash calling Zoe to heat it up - wonderful turnabout. Plus, I'd almost forgotten about those two, I got so caught up in the hospital.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 12:55 PM

ELOISA


*claps along with everyone else* Absolutely superb, as all the above comments said. I find it so impressive how you capture all the characters' thought processes, but Mal's been the most stellar of a very good bunch so far, with the possible exception of River.

Re. homespun's comment immediately above, I see some light in the darkness. If Mal's memory shoves back far enough, Zoe'll be corporal to his private - he'll not argue about taking orders from her then. It'll at least give her a few hours to settle things down before he forgets who she is...

...though, I know where, in the reverse story timeline, his memory's going to end up next. Oh, my. *rewatches Out of Gas, but backwards*


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